Kessel has been dogged with criticism for much of his career. Some of it deserved.
At 18 years-old, his draft stock fell because teams felt he was selfish. Easily the most talented offensive player in the draft, Kessel fell to the Boston Bruins with the fifth overall pick. On the verge of a Stanley Cup, the Bruins traded the 22-year-old Kessel who was fresh off a 36 goal season, rather than sign him to a lucrative second contract.
The whispers about Kessel had grown to casual conversation, but the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted an elite offensive talent. (Oh by the way, the pair of first rounders Boston acquired became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton because the Leafs finished next to last in the NHL).
Kessel was not able to lead the Maple Leafs and his game didn’t grow into a complete version. 171 goals in six seasons didn’t sway the faithful. Finally, with the crushing weight of the Toronto hockey world on his back, or more accurately, at his throat, Kessel’s production began to suffer. And after six years in Toronto, the number of trade suitors for one of the most prolific offensive talents in the NHL were few.
Enter the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then Mike Sullivan.
Kessel led the offensive Penguins charge in the 2016 playoffs, and in the process earned a huge and very protective fan base in Pittsburgh. Despite significant offensive numbers in 2017 (23g, 47a), Kessel frustrated the Penguins coaching staff. There were numerous cajoling conversations. The media leaks you heard and read about the subject came from within the Penguins organization.
Objectively, he didn’t play good hockey.
Kessel became something of a pet project for former assistant coach, Rick Tocchet. The Penguins hired Mark Recchi to replace Tocchet, who departed for the head coach job in Arizona. Part of Recchi’s selling point was his existing relationship with Kessel.
The Meeting & Result
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup, again, and Kessel had good numbers but the Penguins weren’t satisfied with Kessel’s output. This summer, Sullivan made the trip to Toronto to have a face-to-face chat with Kessel.
Only Kessel and Sullivan know what was said during the meeting.
Kessel showed up to camp with some old-school hockey hair trying to escape his helmet. His new look was secondary to a new approach. In an otherwise meaningless training camp, Kessel played a full 200-foot game–end wall to end wall. He dug for pucks in the corner and participated in the transition game. Kessel went to the net. He looked for good shots beyond his bread-n-butter off-foot wrister from the right circle. And he made good plays to set up Evgeni Malkin.
Kessel looked like a player with something to prove.
If he played that hard in training camp, you’re forgiven for wondering just how good he can be in the regular season, and how good the Penguins could be with a hungry Phil Kessel. (Alright, insert your hot dog jokes here).
In fact, Kessel and Evgeni Malkin–paired for all of the camp–fed off each other. From the power play drills on Day 1 when the duo tortured poor Derrick Pouliot, to the goal scoring plays in the final scrimmage.
Something to Prove
Malkin has a chip on his shoulder for last season’s historic Top 100 list snub. He is the best second-line center in the NHL since Mark Messier or Ron Francis, he had won two Stanley Cups (when the list was released) and a Conn Smythe trophy. Yet was a forgotten man.
Kessel has years of criticism and some unfair media harassment to dispel. Now, he has been directly challenged by his coach.
What could Kessel and Malkin accomplish in a full season together, each with a chip on their shoulder? The potential is scary. Really, really scary. All-Star, Art Ross, Rocket Richard trophy scary.
Perhaps Sullivan is about to succeed where every other coach has failed. Perhaps Sullivan is about to get the very best Phil Kessel, the one Brian Burke gave up two first-round picks and a second-round pick to acquire in Toronto. The one Peter Chiarelli drafted fifth overall.
Maybe Sullivan will see the same Phil Kessel this writer saw when Kessel was 16-years-old and electrified an already star-studded 2005 World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, ND. During the NHL lockout, the tournament included players like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin. Yet, Kessel earned as much chatter from fans as they traded pins and chants over a beer.
Another aside, the Canadians invent great chants.
Sullivan has publicly defended Kessel with the oft-repeated line, “He’s competitive…in his own way.” Now it’s time for Kessel to be competitive in an aggressive, productive way. And prove so many in the hockey world wrong.
If he can bring his best to the ice in Cranberry against teammates, in games which don’t matter, then the real games should be a treat.
Soon to be 30-years-old (October 2), it seems Phil Kessel may have finally heard the message.